The gruff male character is sitting in his car on his own, drinking alcohol, looking at a picture of his young daughter, because this shows that he’s haunted by personal tragedies. If that wasn’t enough, he suspiciously regards the people around him as he walks through the airport. Just in case this makes him too emotionally inaccessible though, he soon helps out a little girl who’s adorably scared until he comes along to reassure her. It’s exactly this sort of formulaic construction that stops Non-Stop (pun not intended) from being more immersive. The posters and trailers pull no punches, leading us to expect nothing more than a couple of hours of Liam Neeson catching some bad guys (in other words, the latest version of “Taken” and “Unknown“) and the action-packed film delivers, but not without pausing to insult our intelligence on the way.
Federal Air Marshall Bill Marks is on a plane over the Atlantic Ocean, in which someone is threatening to kill a passenger every 20 minutes unless $150 million is transferred to a bank account. But of course, the bank account is in Marks’ name, meaning he soon becomes suspected of organizing the whole event. It’s a classic setup for a film that needs suspense and excitement, with opportunities for both psychological strategizing and literal combat. It might not be the most original concept, but it has entertainment potential, and with a name as familiar as Neeson’s added to it, it was good to go. The problem is that writers John Richardson, Christopher Roach and Ryan Engle assumed these components were enough to make a good film, ignoring the need for dynamic characters and believable dialogue. Where the action is concerned, it’s safe to say the audience will suspend its disbelief in such a film, but Non-Stop is far too packed with urgent conversations and has too few moments of reasoning or judgement.
As for the other characters, they are all so thinly drawn that the film feels somewhat like an ode to Neeson, with Julianne Moore’s talents being largely restricted to looking concerned, and Lupita Nyong’o (who excelled as Patsy in “12 Years a Slave“) playing a role so half-baked we barely remember her name. Aside from Moore’s fellow passenger Jen and Nyong’o’s novice air hostess Gwen, there’s also the nervous, shifty looking passenger (Scoot McNairy); the tech guy who’s managed to annoy our protagonist from first glance (Nate Parker); the Muslim doctor (Omar Metwally) who is naturally suspected by everyone at one point or another; as well as a few others that manage not to be engulfed by the crowd.
None of these characters are presented as real people however, instead being inserted as tools that can be used by the writers as red herrings — the concept of the killer being inconspicuous is reduced to an endless line of “Did this person do it?” By the time we’ve figured out whether they did or not, we’ve largely stopped caring why. And so, when it comes to the crux of the film (after all, Neeson is constantly questioning what this person is trying to achieve) instead of impressing us with the thought behind their motives, or making us think twice about the problems they raise, it simply seems like an afterthought, added on to form some inadequate explanation of the events.
It’s highly unlikely you’ll go into Non-Stop with no idea of the genre the film so easily situates itself within, so if you choose to see it, you’ll get exactly what you expect. These days, that’s often stated as a terrible thing, but it doesn’t have to be — sometimes it’s nice to know that you can watch a film entirely for the purpose of quick thrills and predictable enjoyment. It’s a shame that Collet-Serra (who also directed “Unknown”) tries to tack on a political message, when it can almost be guaranteed that no one has chosen to watch this film for its philosophical revelations. Mostly, we’re just impressed Neeson’s still such an action hero given his age, and wondering how long it’ll be before Jason Statham storms our screens again.